Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kanzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnusson
Screenplay: John August, Guy Ritchie
128 mins. Rated PG for some action/peril.
I don’t think anyone needs a live-action version of our favorite Disney characters, but they’re just going to do it anyway, it might as well be good.
In this live-action retelling of the 90s Disney classic, Aladdin (Mena Massoud, Ordinary Days, Let’s Rap) is a street rat living in Agrabah who is rather effective at stealing and pick-pocketing as a means of survival. When he comes across Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, Power Rangers, The 33), masquerading as a royal handmaiden, on the streets of the city and in trouble in the marketplace, he helps her, and in the process becomes quite smitten. There’s a problem, though, because she can only marry a prince, and Aladdin is far from that life. Aladdin soon finds himself befriending a Genie (Will Smith, Bad Boys II, TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) who can make his dreams come true and make him someone worthy of marrying the princess, but he must ensure that all these outer changes don’t change the person he is on the inside.
We all know the story of Aladdin, right? Well, there’s nothing major that’s structurally changed in this version, but what is changed is rather cool to see. The most drastic change is how the Genie is portrayed, and it’s done so in a manner which shows love to the late great Robin Williams without caricaturing him. Will Smith brings something wholly unique to his portrayal, which works very well in this interpretation. Much like Williams referencing his own work and getting meta, there’s a 90s Fresh Prince vibe to a lot of the humor that Smith brings to his version of the Genie. The toughest thing is to separate the two incarnations, and that’s where Smith is the most successful. I wasn’t comparing these Genies at all while watching because I was so invested in his interpretation. It’s a good thing that Smith did not take the role of Holt Farrier in the new Dumbo film, a role filled by the more-fitting Colin Farrell, because the Genie suits him so well.
Mena Massoud is not a household name, but he was a perfect choice for Aladdin, one of the reasons being because he isn’t a household name yet. He had that Aladdin charm and comedy, but he was able to play to the character’s emotional arc quite well. It’s funny, because I was wondering how some of these live-action interpretations could get over the idea of falling in love with someone you just met a day earlier, but Massoud’s emotions are on his face the whole time, and his chemistry with Naomi Scott is solid.
There’s a few new layers in the film for the character of Jasmine. It’s a more feminist look at the beloved character, and in the past few years, as Disney has been refocusing their princesses away from the idea that they need a prince or love or a man to make them happy, it works quite well. I’m not sure of its historical accuracy, but there’s a talking magic genie, so there you have it. I really like the new character arc for Jasmine, but I wasn’t a big fan of the new song, Speechless. The song itself is fine, but it doesn’t sound like the rest of the music in the film, and it’s obvious that it was written by other artists. It’s a good song, but it doesn’t mesh with the film, and it doesn’t really fit.
Director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) seemed on the surface like an odd choice for Aladdin, but I read something he had said about Aladdin being the character he identified with most at a younger age. Ritchie is known for his fringe heroes, the ones who do not so great things but do them for the right reasons. The pick-pocketing street hustler character of Aladdin does fit him rather well, and this film is a good melding of his style with the Disney-branded wide appeal. There are times we see the Guy Ritchie slow-motion shot and the times we do work really well. The movie feels very collaborative in the best of ways.
Ritchie’s style fits with this new version of Jafar, played in the film by Marwan Kanzari (What Happened to Monday, The Angel). Dubbed Hot Jafar, Kanzari’s version of Jafar works right into Ritchie’s vision. He’s less a menacing, beard-twiddling evil and more of simpler, tighter version of a character, boiled down to his essence, a con man. He’s manipulating the system in order to become the Sultan. His menace lies both on the surface and under layers of cunning. His staff is a tool but he is nearly as good as changing people’s minds as the staff.
Navid Negahban (12 Strong, American Assassin) plays the Sultan, and this is another change that works better for the medium of live-action. The bumbling almost comic-relief Sultan of the animated film works very well for that version, but Negahban is a Sultan concerned with changing the laws of his land, and he is conflicted by his love for his daughter and his duty to tradition. A problem with eliminating his silliness is that it was given to another character in the film, Prince Anders (Billy Magnusson, Into the Woods, Velvet Buzzsaw), a worthless added fool that does little to add anything of substance to the narrative. Negahban’s character works, Magnusson’s flat-out does not.
Aladdin feels at times, especially early in the film, that it’s going too fast. There’s a jumbling to the early parts of the story that makes everything feel so rushed, but once the Genie is introduced, the film slows down significantly, and that’s where the story really opens up and breathes.
Aladdin is imperfect, but it is fun. It’s an enjoyably nostalgic ride through the Disney classic that isn’t overly-beholden to it. That’s when it works. Disney has ridden this line of how much they want their live-action retellings to carbon copy the animated film and how much they want to strike a new path. Aladdin isn’t always as successful as, say, a Cinderella or The Jungle Book, but it cannot be faulted for its lovely color-palette and visually striking storytelling or its fast-paced and fun action set pieces. I had a lot of fun with the flawed Aladdin. I think you will too.
-Kyle A. Goethe